New musical work, 'Mother's Lament,' confronts deaths of young black men

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Music's ability to heal will be tested in the world premiere of "Mother's Lament" at Morgan State University.

Politicians, pundits and protesters have had much to say about the deaths of young black men in Baltimore and other cities. Saturday night at Morgan State University, musicians will address the issue.

"Mother's Lament," a work for soprano, chorus and orchestra created by two Morgan faculty members, gives voice to the perspective of those who have lost sons to violence. The piece receives its world premiere tonight in the university's Murphy Fine Arts Center on a program that includes videos of Baltimore mothers discussing their loss.

"This is our means of caring for our community," said Vincent Dion Stringer, a bass-baritone and voice teacher at Morgan since 2005. He wrote the poem "Mother's Lament" that has been set to music by his colleague James Lee III. "The arts can have a cathartic effect," he said.

Kathryn Cooper-Nicholas, one of the mothers whose experiences Stringer drew from to pen his text, agrees.

"There is a cloud hanging over our city," said Cooper-Nicholas, who founded the organization Sisters Saving the City after her son, Andre Nicholas, was stabbed multiple times at a Baltimore bus stop in 2007. Although he survived and thrived, he was killed seven years later.

"I feel that the music and the poetry offer a healing opportunity not just for us, but for the city," Cooper-Nicholas said.

A similar sentiment is expressed by Alice Oaks. She lost both of her sons to gun violence on Baltimore streets: Irvin Bernard Lawson Jr in 2008, Larry Walter Henderson Jr in 2014.

"I'm thankful that Vincent cared about how we felt and what we're going through, that he would think enough of us to share our stories and try to help us," said Oaks, president of a support group, Survivors Against Violence Everywhere.

Stringer's text has been set to music that reflects trademarks of Lee's style — strongly communicative, vividly orchestrated — that have earned him international admiration. The composer has received commissions from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and major ensembles around the country.

The Michigan-born Lee, an associate professor at Morgan for a decade, has been building an international career as well. Last month, he traveled to South America for the world premieres of two concertos. An experience on a previous trip to that continent laid the groundwork for what would become "Mother's Lament."

"I happened to be in Brazil as a Fulbright Scholar in 2014 and was watching CNN when they started showing what happened in Ferguson with Michael Brown," Lee, 40, said. "Later, I saw a comment by a Facebook friend asking when an African-American composer would write a requiem about what was happening to our young men."

Lee contacted Stringer to suggest that they collaborate on a musical work dealing with that concern. The composer recommended that his colleague start by reading the Book of Lamentations in the bible. Like several the chapters in that book, Stringer's poem "Mother's Lament" has 22 verses.

Lee has set those verses into a three-movement, 40-minute-long composition, which will be premiered by soprano Marquita Lister, the Morgan State University Choir and the Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Julien Benichou.

In the first movement, "Sleepless Night," the soprano soloist sings of a mother's anxiety whenever her son leaves the house. "A Black man-child isn't safe out there in this angry world …"

"Mother's Fear," the second and longest portion of the work, introduces references to famous racially charged killings, including those of Brown and Trayvon Martin, as well as lower-profile killings. A provocative word keeps returning in the text: "crucified."

"Some of these deaths are more like crucifixions," the Connecticut-born Stringer said.

He does not only focus on high-profile incidents. The poem also mentions D'Roderick Jefferson-Cook, a young man killed in Baltimore in 2013, assailant unknown.

"His mother, my dear friend Debbi Blackwell-Cook, talked with me about all the victims we don't hear about," Stringer said. "She used the phrase 'so many names unknown.' Those words spoke to me."

That led Stringer to weave a refrain into "Mother's Lament": "So many names unknown, So many lost sons, So many broken hearts, So many lights dimmed."

For the finale, titled "Mother's Prayer," the composer evokes a Negro spiritual and draws out shimmering orchestral sounds as the soloist prays that her son will be kept safe. There is a prayer, too, for parents who've lost children to violence, a plea to "heal their wounds and soothe their pain."

That pain continues to be felt by those like Cooper-Nicholas.

"When I think about the experience of my son being murdered, and all the murders before him and all the murders that continue," she said, "where is the outrage that there isn't enough being done to address the root causes of the violence? I feel people have become so desensitized to it."

Dorothy Johnson-Speight, founder and national executive director of the Philadelphia-based violence-prevention advocacy group Mothers in Charge, will serve as host of the "Mother's Lament" program.

Her 24-year-old son, Khaaliq Jabbar Johnson, a social worker with a degree form the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, was shot to death in 2001 after a dispute over a parking space.

"There should be outrage not just when a white police officer shoots a black man, but when a young black man kills someone who looks like him, and when babies and other innocents are being killed in drive-by shootings," said Johnson-Speight. "We need everyone to come together about this, not just the mothers and social organizations."

Oaks shares that feeling.

"It's like an illness," she said, "and it needs a cure. I just keep praying that one day this will all end, one day soon."

In addition to the performance of "'Mother's Lament," a public discussion about the toll of violence will be held Sunday afternoon at Morgan State.

"There's a feeling of unresolved justice in Baltimore because of Freddie Gray, but just the other weekend, we had 22 shootings in Baltimore, none of which were police shootings," Stringer said. "We have to find a way we can all come out of this whole, or at least move toward wholeness."

This weekend's presentation of a concert and a community dialogue may provide a start.

"How it will be received, I don't know," Cooper-Nicholas said. "Whether it will be a change agent, I don't know. But it's something good to do."

It's something that has already affected Cameron Potts, a freshman member of the Morgan State University Choir.

"As a young male in Baltimore, to sing this piece of music is a life-changing moment," he said. "I believe it's going to be a part of the change that's coming to Baltimore and the nation. Many people are going to be touched by this."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

"Mother's Lament" will be performed at 8 p.m. Saturday at Murphy Fine Arts Center, Morgan State University, 2201 Argonne Drive. Tickets are $10 to $25. Call 443-885-4440, or go to murphyfineartscenter.org.

A free community conversation about stopping violence will be held at 4 p.m. Sunday at Morgan State University Memorial Chapel, 4307 Hillen Road.

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
54°